Saturday, September 14, 2013

Glossary of frontier fiction: B (blackman - boodle)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880-1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

blackman = a game in which one player stands between two facing teams, a distance apart, and after calling out “blackman,” attempts to tag runners crossing from one side to the other. “I respect a woman more that’ll let her dishes go, and go out and play black man with her children.” Emma Ghent Curtis, The Fate of a Fool.

Blackstone and Chitty = a law book, Commentaries on the Laws of England, written by William Blackstone, first published in the 1760s; the 1826 edition with notes by J. Chitty was often reprinted in America. “By virtue of his diploma, and three years of country practice in the New Hampshire county town where his father before him had read Blackstone and Chitty, he had his window on the fourth floor of the Farquhar Building lettered ‘Attorney and Counselor at Law’.” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

blam-jam = mild expletive for “damned.” “We can’t get that blam-jam handcar up to Palisade and back without somethin’ more’n four-man power.” A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson.

blandander = to cajole with flattery; to talk nonsense. “I know where I’m goin’, an’ that’s more thin you know, ye blandhanderin’ divil!” Francis Lynde, The Grafters.

blanket mate = a working partner, who may share the same bedroll. “The artillery is a case of s’prise, the most experienced gent in Wolfville not lookin’ for no gun-play between folks who’s been pards an’ blanket-mates for years.” Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

blatherskite = rubbish, foolish talk. “For she would have fought anything on four legs for the life of that loose-jointed, red-and-white blatherskite she held to be prince of his race.” George Pattullo, The Untamed.

blazer = a hoax, lie, trick. As he says this, Black Jack sets up a bottle an cup, an then for a blazer slams a six-shooter on the bar at the same time. Alfred Henry Louis, Wolfville Days.

blench = pallor. “The man in the doorway was tall and lean, and the prison blench upon his face was an unpleasant contrast to the ruddy tan of the faces about the table.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

blind = of a way or path that is confusing, uncertain. “You have to take a long squint, like when you’re in the woods on a path that ain’t been used much lately and has got blind.” Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord.

blind lead = a vein of valuable minerals not visible from the surface (metaphorically, keeping quiet about something). “Doc Peets, whose jedgement of females is a cinch, allows she’s as pretty as a diamond flush, and you can gamble Doc Peets ain’t makin no blind leads when its a question of squaws. Alfred Henry Lewis, Wolfville.

blind pig = an unlicensed drinking house. “You make the Senator’s job and your job and public service all round a bunco game, a bunco game with marked cards; while we Service and Land fellows act the decent sign for a blind pig.” Agnes C. Laut, The Freebooters of the Wilderness.

Bloomingdale Hospital
block system = a system of railroad signaling that divides the track into sections and allows no train to enter a section that is not completely clear. “Little things, insignificant in themselves, but in the light of his present understanding, looming large as the danger signals of a well-ordered block system.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

Bloomingdale = a private hospital for the care of the mentally ill founded by New York Hospital, located in Morningside Heights and built c1820. “If I spoke all the truth I know and acted upon it, my friends would have me now in Bloomingdale.” Elizabeth Higgins, Out of the West.

Cavalryman in blouse, left
blouse = a jacket as part of a US military uniform. “Several men were leaping from their broad galleries, some just pulling on a blouse, others in their shirt-sleeves, but all hastening towards the stables.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

blow = inform, confess. “‘Did the Big Swede blow on me?’ he asked excitedly.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

blow in = to spend money. “The one thought they shared in common was that of the wages that would come to them at the end of the drive; of the feverish joy of ‘blowing in,’ in a single night.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

blow one’s stuff = squander money. “He could play two deuces pat at bluff, / Could ‘crack a bottle,’ or ‘blow his stuff.’” William De Vere, Jim Marshall’s New Pianner.

bludgy = thieving by violence if necessary. “‘I’m liable to follow Indian tradition and take whatever I want, by whatever means!’ ‘My! My!’ said Rhoda, ‘that sounds bludgy.’” Honoré Willsie Morrow, The Heart of the Desert.

blue = a soldier, police officer. “Mr. Carhart was very quiet and considerate and businesslike, but he had a streak of blue in him.” Samuel Merwin, The Road-Builders.

Blue Back Speller = schoolbook developed by Noah Webster, published 1783. “Our education was very much alike, the principal studies being ‘Blue Back Speller’ and the ‘Dog-wood Switch.’” R. B. Pumphrey, The Trail Drivers of Texas.

blue blotter = one who drinks heavily. “But when a man’s making a blue blotter of himself, things don’t look the same to him.” William MacLeod Raine, Brand Blotters.

blue devils = a fit of depression. “But the other day—how can I explain it?—the blue devils had possession of me.” Mary Etta Stickney, Brown of Lost River.

blue pencil = of news editing, to cut or mark corrections on written copy. “Given an incident he could work it up with an abundance of detail and ‘psychology,’ easily blue-pencilled, and a certain illusion.” Gertrude Atherton, Perch of the Devil.

blue ribbon = a badge worn by those who had taken the pledge of temperance. “I have offered that boy a drink out of my flask on campaign, when we were cold enough and tired enough to make my old Aunt Jane weaken on her blue ribbon.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

bluecoat = soldier. “I did my best to be good company to the bluecoats, and had a first-class dinner for them on my car.” Paul Leicester Ford, The Great K&A Train Robbery.

bluejacket = a sailor in the navy. “Dan Macdonnell was a quiet, steady man; big-chested, active, cheerful, like the better sort of bluejacket.” Martin Allerdale Grainger, Woodsmen of the West.

blue-john = a blue or purple fibrous variety of fluorspar occurring only in Derbyshire: used for vases and other ornamentation. “It amounted almost to defeat, it seemed, looking at it in the blue-john light of that cold, harsh morning.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

bluestone = the very lowest quality gin or whisky. “I’ve know’d you fer awhiles, an’ I tell you right here, Boyle, you’re runin’ a fine career with that same bluestone swill Moe dopes out fer whiskey.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Sheriff of Dyke Hole.

bluestone = copper sulphate, used in solution to treat varieties of wheat and oats. “He intended a visit to the barn, where his man was dipping seed wheat in bluestone solution to kill the smut.” Herman Whitaker, The Settler.

bo = a vagrant, a tramp. “Maybe some bo flagged us down for a ride.” W. C. Tuttle, Thicker Than Water.

Boadicea = queen of a tribe of Britons who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. “She rode as Boadicea might have ridden to battle; there was not a yielding line in her body.” Marie Manning, Judith of the Plains.

bob = a short sleigh runner. “The sleigh sped along with that intoxicating smoothness only to be felt when traveling with double ‘bobs’ on a perfect trail.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

bobble = jerky, jumpy movement. “We had several bobbles crossing that strip of country; nothing bad, just jump and run a mile or so, and then mill until daylight.” Andy Adams, Cattle Brands.

bobinet / bobbinet = a machine-made cotton or silk net, imitating lace. “His heart all but failed him when he saw his bride-to-be in her bobinet veil, a flush upon her broad face.” Caroline Lockhart, The Lady Doc.

bob-tail = a tugboat used for towing logs. “Wait till yer damned little gasoline bob-tail gets down to th’ water.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

bobtail = the first cowboy(s) guarding the cattle at night. “The bobtail moves the herd to the bed ground – some distance from camp, to avoid mutual annoyance and alarm – and holds it while night horses are caught and supper eaten.” Eugene Manlove Rhodes, “The Trouble Man.”

bobtail = worthless, a term from poker. “She ain’t goin’ bobtail. That’s straight.” Frank Lewis Nason, To the End of the Trail.

bobtail = a dishonorable discharge. “If de captain dun gibs me five yeahs an’ a bob-tail, Ah’ll still be glad dat Ah wah in de Black Hoss troop at de propah moment, sah!” Will Levington Comfort, Trooper Tales.

bobtail flush = a poker hand with four cards of the same suit. “You win; I pass; mine’s a bob-tail flush; but you stacked the deck!” John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail.

Bogardus = successful New York Daguerreotypist (1822-1908). “He handed the much-soiled photograph labeled ‘Bogardus’ to her.” Frederic Remington, John Ermine of the Yellowstone.

Bois-Brûlés = a sub-tribe of the Dakota Indians, found in Manitoba near the Red River. “Long after, from the lips of a passing Bois brûlé, she heard the story of Pierre’s death.” James Hendryx, The Promise.

bombazine = a twilled fabric made with a silk warp and a worsted weft; the black fabric used for legal gowns or mourning clothing. “In the railroad station, the grey-haired, torpid station-master banged up the ticket window, drew on his bombazine sleevelets.” Robert Dunn, The Youngest World.

bone = a dollar. “‘What wages are you fellows drawing down?’ he asked, bluntly. ‘Three bones,’ the Lark told him.” Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap.

boneset = a North American plant of the daisy family that bears clusters of small flowers and is used in herbal medicine. “She handed the bowl of boneset tea. ‘Take it; it’ll do you good, Cassy,’ she added.” Gilbert Parker, Northern Lights.

boodle = corrupt politician. “How I wish we were back there living in Christian fraternity with Mike O’Daffy, the boodle alderman.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

boodle = large amount of money. “You told me to lift his boodle. Time was short—he wouldn’t play for long.” Ridgwell Cullum, The Story of the Foss River Ranch.

Previous: B (beat - blackleg)
Next: B (boom - buck)

Sources: Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, Cowboy Lingo, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, and various online dictionaries

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Ann Parker, Silver Lies


  1. I remember being confused by the first mention of men wearing "blouses," in a western. Took me a little to catch on.

    1. I assumed it was a shirt until I finally looked it up.

  2. Forgotten terms like these mostly require no explanation for readers today as they are self-explanatory in the context of the sentence. Yet, looking at the words separately, like "blouse" for instance, and you wouldn't know the meaning.

    1. I've found that guessing from the context has been right about half the time. Often I'm just off the mark. Sometimes, I have been dead wrong.

  3. I always love seeing how word meanings (and spellings) change over time - thanks for an informative column.

    1. It is easy to forget that history is embedded in words.

  4. The Marine Corps, until a few years ago, still referred to the uniform jacket as the blouse.

  5. I used to play black man every night in the summer, but it wasn't called that.